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(Feature in wknd magazine of Khaleej Times dated 26 February, 2023)

Bombora. The name of Australian photographer Andrew Semark’s booth at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah sounded intriguing and exotic at once. The walls were adorned with lavish visuals of the ocean in all its resplendence – the azurine tones, emerald greens and matte greys merging with the frothy whites of breaking waves.

Breaking waves. That’s what Bombora means. And it is what Andrew has been obsessed with for 15 years, an obsession that he captured in photographs and exhibited to the world.

Andrew is besotted with the ocean and has known the waves from close quarters. He learned to surf them first, and when he became adept at reading the characteristics of the surging waters, he committed himself to seize their grandeur, beauty and power in his camera. Commitment - it is what defines Andrew’s passion for the art that depicts the dynamic nature of the sea surface in breathtaking ways.

Everything that one sees in the picture is natural – from the shapes of the waves to the myriad hues they display. Although the sea is blue in popular description, one look at Andrew’s work and you know it is not just blue.

‘It is all about light. It illuminates the water differently at different times of the day,’ he avers when I express disbelief over the changing colours of the ocean in his images. The sheer magnitude of his attempts to bring the ocean to life in his photographs is evident when he talks about the detailed planning, the dangers he confronts and the need to be present in the moment while he is capturing the images.

An error in judgement or failure to respond quickly to an oncoming wave could mean catastrophe, which nearly had him drowned two years ago. ‘My eardrums were ruptured, my arms seriously bruised by the camera when I was tossed around and pushed to the bottom of the sea by a huge crashing wave,’ he reminisces without a shudder.

The ocean is where Andrew has anchored his life. The risks don’t deter him from going out into the waters because the ocean humbles him and brings peace and purpose in his life. He concludes by comparing the waves to humans – each one different, at times quirky and violent, but always with a beauty of their own.

A journey of self-discovery

If human spirit had to be summarised in pictures, if the meaning of life can be distilled into a phrase, it is in the compelling visual stories that Michael Aboya crafts and titles ‘The light within’. To all those who thought photography was about clicking a few random pictures in our aim and shoot devices, it is time to reconsider their fallacy.

27-year-old Michael’s foray into photography has spiritual undertones to it. His journey began at a point when he was searching for meaning in life, asking hard questions like why he was born and what his purpose in being here was. They were questions that sprung when he was 19, in the wake of his father’s untimely demise, a loss that made him feel colossally lost. It was photography that pulled him out of grief and made him look at life and the world around him with a new perspective – a perspective that he wishes to share with the world through his riveting people pictures.

Each image is a depiction of bursting hope, joy and love spontaneously captured. ‘It reflects the light that we all invariably carry within us. Photographs can speak to us, and through the pictures I shot, I wanted to tell people to be strong and have faith despite all the darkness around. Also, I realised that in order for me to find myself, I must capture other people’s stories because regardless of what they went through, people always found a way to be happy. I decided to find how they did that by taking their photographs and studying them,’ says Michael, who is filled with unwavering faith and wisdom.

The profound notes that accompany this Ghanaian photographer’s works are an exposition of his philosophies and his positive outlook. Together with these, his photographs make a ready reckoner for life and an instant motivation to distressed souls. ‘Your art made my day,’ a visitor’s remark sums up the impact of Michael’s works on his audience.

Bringing dead leaves to life

If Bambora is an intriguing title and ‘The light within’ is uplifting, ‘Fallen leaves’ might sound a tad melancholic for its connotations, but what I was treated to at Filipp Kabanyayev’s photo booth were the most sanguine sights that one can get at a photo exhibition. Leaves, leaves and leaves, but not one alike nor in the shape or colour one would associate with fallen foliage. ‘Is this photography, really?’ I ask the 35-year-old year old Russian photographer from the US in disbelief.

‘It is. It is a combination of nature’s elements and human technique. Leaves are not something that people consider beautiful, especially the fallen ones. So I wanted to bring out their beauty by showing them through light painting photography,’ Filipp explains about his unique art form.

There is nothing elaborate in Filipp’s creations. They are minimalistic yet striking with vivid colours and textures. To bring such magnificence to something as mundane as fallen leaves takes immense effort and patience, and Filipp finds his devotion to his art deeply soothing and meditative. ‘The hardest part is,’ he says, each leaf is different, and it takes time to find the right angle that would reveal its unique qualities.’

For someone to whom expression of thoughts through words doesn’t come easily, his art helps him showcase his view of the world in an artistic manner. To him, like Andrew and Michael, photography is not a mere hobby or a means to make a living. It is life itself. It is what sustains them and keeps them in sync with their soul. Their pictures are dependent on light, both external and internal, and every click of theirs is a magnum opus in itself.

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(Opinion Column in Khaleej Times dated 8 February, 2023)

As a creative writing coach for children, the hardest thing I have had to face after lessons turned online is to keep my students out of the right-mouse-click habit whenever a red line appeared in their passages. The moment the red herring appeared, they sought correction from the language processing program embedded in the system and did the wrong thing rightly. Error found and fixed without a thought spared to the fundamentals of language.

It took constant monitoring and remonstration to make them quit the habit of using instant grammar tools and additionally, to deter them from using the internet for completing tasks that did not need research. A teacher can smell a student’s felony from a mile, and she will do everything within her means to stop learning from getting smeared by con jobs.

‘If I hadn’t learned to write from you, I would have used chatGPT for my essays now,’ one of them tittered during a recent discussion about the new viral phenomenon that is making anyone capable of typing words in English into instant story tellers, poets, essayists and content creators.

The student’s candour should have made me balk, but did it? No. Instead, I took comfort in the thought that the student had chosen to write by the rules he had picked up from me than take the shortcut to crafting his essays. What I saw in him and all the others, who by now are amply equipped, is a sense of confidence in a set of linguistic and creative skills that they could call their own.

This is what makes true intelligence stand out from its artificial counterparts that are now spawning tools and techniques like guppies. A lot has been said and written about the new response generating program, ChatGPT, most of which has been positive for the apparent benefits it offers someone with literary and conceptual deficiency.

Anything that makes a task easier establishes symbiotic connection with our brain. In the end, it is ease that makes us choose one way over the other, and artificial intelligence has helped us steer through a futuristic world rather smoothly.

As a teacher who is also an author to whom words are sacred and every written sentence is a hymn, the emergence of tools that appropriate human thought is a dilemma. While the teacher in me weighs in on the advantages in terms of allowing children to be helped in their assignments, there is a question that looms large in the background. ‘What do I want my students to be? Robots and response generating machines, or thinking individuals who can take responsibility for their lives?’

The idea of AI-aided-writing is not intimidating on its own, but when it is stacked up against ethics and emotions, two major components of human intellect and conduct, pertinent questions begin to emerge. Add one more element – creativity – to it and the writer in me begins to squirm.

Despite the widespread concerns raised, the popular views that have sprung up in the wake of chatGPT’s acceptance give me solace. None of what I have heard dismisses it as superfluous; it is being given the benefit of doubt by evaluators and educators. When employed moderately, with checks and balances in place, students can probably find a lot of value in it. But where do we draw the line? How do we stop people from falling victim to temptations – of filching ideas and calling them their own for quick gains? Should seeking advice, albeit from an artificial source, to write our ballads and bestsellers be labelled illicit, or should we normalise it?

Even as I am typing this piece into my laptop, the AI in the background is relentlessly prompting me with words and sentence completions. While an enterprising content creator who is only aiming at churning out passages for commercial use might be thrilled at the suggestions that are coming her way, the true literary aficionado in me is giving it a royal ignore.

The predicament for people of my ilk is only just beginning. With Google announcing plans to launch its own rival version of ChatGPT, there is going to be a glut of imitation ideas out there for us to lunge at and leverage. I will have to strive harder to let my students realise that they have the liberty to use the platforms, but true creative satisfaction comes only when the piece they write is drawn from their own intelligence and presented in their own voice.

My task now will be to make them see the difference between ingenuity and borrowed talent and let them decide for themselves what would give them a true sense of accomplishment. As I often suggest to them, the choice is theirs – to usurp their writing or to give it a personal voice. As their mentor, I give them an option – AI for artificial intelligence or AI, for the initials of my name. Time and again, they have chirruped in unison, ‘the latter, ma’am.’ And therein lies my hope.

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(Opinion Column in Khaleej Times dated 24 January, 2023)

To be able to retire in the forties, with a lifetime’s accolades in the kitty, is a dream that many cherish but fail to accomplish. But Jacinda Arden has just done it, not at a point where people ask, ‘why not, yet?’ but at a peak where people wonder, ‘why, after all?’ She had everything going for her, at least in the public arena; she was the cynosure of all political eyes, she was noncontroversial, and above all, she was an undisputed icon. She symbolised gentle but persuasive woman power, represented the idea of success by dint of performance alone, and when everyone thought she was here for the long haul, she hung up the boots by merely saying, ‘no more in the tank.’

I found the reason for her ‘stepping aside’ more noteworthy than the announcement itself. It made me take a harder look at what life entailed for a successful woman who apparently had it all yet felt compelled to toss everything in a trice. I felt it was time to take stock of what women wanted in life at the end of the day, and how much load they could take to put themselves on the map and be counted in a lopsided world that grudged them their dues.

Many years ago, when I graduated with a journalism degree, I had a choice - to plunge into a world hitherto dominated by men and held little promise for their counterparts or adopt a safer vocation that would keep me sheltered from the rough and tumble of reportage. At that time, when women were still taking baby steps in the media world, I made an informed decision to stay away from it because the ‘breaking news’ life that I was staring at seemed to be a recipe for an early burnout. Despite the grand career avenues, I renounced it before it sucked me into its vortex, and I took an alternative path in the world of words.

In deciding so, I may have probably jettisoned the basic tenets of feminism and women’s empowerment that call for pushing the envelope and breaking the bounds, but I am better off today. What I did many years ago is what Arden has probably done today - putting her priorities as a human and a woman with a personal life in order, and making a call that may not precisely be popular with the women’s lib advocates but fits perfectly into her own scheme of things.

For all the glorious din we women make about gender equality, and for all the moves we make towards empowering ourselves in a milieu of conservative social mores, the truth remains – there is a lot at stake for the ‘women of true substance’. There are trade-offs and hard bargains that they do not speak of often for the fear of being labelled infirm and wasted by a constantly scrutinising gender militia.

There are no two ways about the amount of sacrifice women in the higher echelons make, be it in politics, business or any other domain that they are claiming a rightful and equal place in. Their successes carry hefty price tags, and their lives bear battle scars that they cleverly conceal under high-end cosmetic brands. Their homes are an ensemble of half-met expectations and unspoken letdowns; their mind space is a roulette constantly betting on the outcomes of their empowered existence, the end game is never clear till they make a final call.

At some stage of their advancement, women will have to come to terms with the fact that life is not about being equal, invincible or entitled, but about knowing what is worth wagering and what is not. It is about knowing how far they can stretch themselves to prove their mettle to the world and to themselves. To many the awakening happens earlier, and to the others, it comes when they are on the precipice of self-destruction.

Five years may not be a long span in a politician’s life, but it is enough time for a woman who counts herself as human first to know which way her life must go. It is long enough to snuff the zest out of her personal life and reduce her to a shadow of what she originally had been. The right to decide whether she wants to spend a major part of her stint on this planet in professional duress or in the pleasant company of her dear ones is entirely hers. It is when every woman takes the courage to decide what is right for her, irrespective of how the world might judge her, that a woman becomes truly empowered. To that end, Arden’s decision deserves a standing ovation. In my view, she didn’t quit; she merely ‘stepped aside’ to make room for things she deemed important in her life.

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